VATICAN CITY (CNN) – Last year, Pope Francis broke the long-standing papal tradition of washing only priests’ feet.
Pope Francis tradition includes women and non-Christians in the symbolic ceremony.
Before Pope Francis, modern Popes had only ever washed the feet of 12 priests at the Vatican, during the Mass for the Last Supper.
According to the Vatican, this year, Pope Francis visited a home for the elderly and disabled to wash the feet of “12 disabled people of different ages, ethnicities and religious confessions,” during a special Lord’s Supper Mass.
Those chosen for the special honor included a 16-year-old boy from Cape Verde who was paralyzed in a diving accident last year, a 19-year-old man and a 39-year-old woman diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and two 86-year-olds with mobility problems.
The 78-year-old pope smiled at each of the people whose feet he washed, but clearly struggled to get up from his knees as he moved down the line; two assistants helped him to his feet.
The tradition of the pontiff washing his priests’ feet is based on a passage of the Bible which says that Jesus attended to his disciples at the Last Supper, saying, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:15)
Vatican ecclesiastical rules say that only “adult males” may have their feet washed at the Mass of the Last Supper (according to the Roman Missal, 2002), following the biblical tradition that Jesus washed the feet of 12 men.
The choice of 12 priests is also symbolic of Jesus’ institution of the priesthood, which according to Catholic tradition, occurred at the Last Supper.
According to CNN, until last year, no pope had dared to go against Vatican rules and choose anyone but priests for the Holy Thursday event.
In choosing to change the practice, many believe Francis is being as radical as Jesus was in his own time.
Pope Francis is emphasizing the spirit rather than the letter of the law.
This is something Jesus himself did by breaking with Jewish tradition in washing his disciples’ feet.
The spirit behind washing the feet of another person is one of humility and service.
Through that act, the leader becomes a servant to his followers.
The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship says that foot-washing “represents the service and charity of Christ, who came ‘not to be served, but to serve.'”
In breaking the rules of foot-washing at the Vatican, the Pope is acknowledging what has been a practice in local churches for some time, and also reminding Catholics that the important thing is not whose foot is being washed, but the spirit behind that gesture.